Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Pyc/Pyk--a Thick Subject I
Bill Long 6/19/08
Norman Zucker, first-time speller at the recently-completed National Spelling Bee, got the word pycnogonid to spell. He quickly, and correctly, rattled it off. The word means "of or relating to the class Pycnogida," and this word describes "any of various marine chelicerate arthropods" so constituting that class. They have very small bodies and long legs. In a word (really two words) it is the sea spider. I am interested in sea spiders, of course, but I am more interested in what people call things, and this word is made up of the Greek words for "thick" or "dense" (puknos) and "knee" or "joint" (gonu). And, if you look at the cut in the Century, you can see how appropriate is the name. Here is an online picture. They have a four-segmented thorax bearing four pairs of many-joined legs. Thick-jointed indeed. Look like they did a lot of weight-training to bulk up their joints.
So, I thought it good to take a two-essay tour of "pyc/pyk"-related words, even though there are only about three of them in the Collegiate. There are more than 15 of these terms in the OED and other bigger dictionaries. The basic rule is that almost all of these words are "pyc"-words. The only "pyk" words are derived from a German original in the late 19th century; the other words are taken from the scientific Latin spelling pycno, in use since the 18th century. But let's begin with the most significant "pyk" word: pyknic. Interestingly, the Unabridged spells it either pyknic or pycnic. Thus, it is no picnic, even if the origin of the word tells an interesting story.
Michael Quinion, in his World Wide Words, devotes a page to it. Consistently with what I said above, pyknic arose in Germany in the late 19th/early 20th century. Ernst Kretschmer (1888-1964), a fellow Tuebinger (I studied there in 1980-81), was a psychiatrist who came up with, among other things, an approach to body type and personality that was taken over by many American thinkers in the mid-20th century. His system was based on three main body types: the asthenic/leptosomic (thin, weak, small), the athletic (muscular, large-boned), and pyknic (stocky, fat--"thick"). Each of these bodily types was associated with personality traits (how did people come up with that idea?). When I was growing up in the 1950s/60s, I recall reading about endomorphs, ectomorphs, and mesomorphs. In any case, Kretschmer hypothesized that the pyknic type was friendly and gregarious. Well, it would be an interesting study to limn how popular his system became, who adopted it, when it was questioned and discarded, etc., but that is beyond my scope here.
The OED says that a pyknic person was inclined, in Kretschmer's system, to a "cyclothymic" termperament. Cyclothymia (derived from the Greek words for "circle" and "mind, temper") was first used in 1921 to describe a condition marked by cyclic alterations of mood from exhilaration to depression, with a tendency towards manic-depression. I wonder, again, if manic-depression replaced this word--or whether it ever really "caught on." I guess, from this article, that cyclothymia is a mild form of Bipolar II disorder. We have so many categories, don't we?
A Few Other Pyk Words
The OED actually has a few other pyk words which call for mention: pyknolepsy, pyknosis, pykrete and pykestole. Pyknolepsy again emerged from German psychiatry early in the 20th century, and was "a form of epilepsy with frequent absence seizures, seen esp. in children." The typical situation would be where a child would simply stop what he/she was doing, stare off into space for several minutes, and then resume activity as if nothing had transpired. I think its more frequent name today is "childhood absence epilepsy." Why would it be called pyknolepsy? Perhaps because of the "thickness" or frequency of seizures. One more word down--about 400,000 to go!
Pyknosis, also from a German word invented late in the 19th century, is a term from cell biology and is here used in the sense of "condensation" or "condensed matter" (pyknos here means to make dense or solid). Specifically it means "reduction in size and increase in staining of a cell or its nucleus, usually indicating degeneration or necrosis." The condensation in view is of chromatin in the nucleus of the cell. This article illustrates of three kinds of nuclear degeneration in cells: karyolysis (nuclear fading); pyknosis (nuclear shrinkage); karyorrhexis (nuclear fragmentation). Another word for "programmed cell death" is apotosis, a sort of "falling off" from cell health.
I guessed that pykrete would be something similar to "concrete" or "quickrete" or other "retes" that tend to help solidify things. Sure enough, it was a term coming out of WWII to describe ice to which a proportion (about 15%) of wood pulp or sawdust was added to give it strength as construction material." Actually, the word has nothing to do with "thickness;" the word is a blend of the name of GN Pyke (1893-1948), who proposed the use of this material, and "concrete." This article tells us that it was proposed as a candidate for making a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier.
Finally, pykestole, an obsolete word, is the name of a game played formerly in Yorkshire, England, on Easter Monday. Since the attestations come from the 15th century in the OED, I think we are probably so far removed from it that no one actually knows what is was. The OED suggests it was a form of "stool-ball," a game popular until the 20th century. Then nearly omniscient Wikipedia has a fine short article on it.
Conclusion--A Bonus Word
Before arriving at the "pyc/pyks," I was arrested by a word in the Century, Pyanepsia, a classical term I had not previously heard. It is dervied from the Greek word for "bean" (puanos) and "boil" (epsein). Well, we are told that Pyanepsia was a festival in ancient Athens, celebrated on the 7th of Pyanepsion (Oct/Nov), in honor of Apollo. No one today seems to know exactly what was celebrated at this festival, though this article says that the eiresione (olive-branch surrounded with wool and laden with the fruits of the year) was carried during this harvest-type feast.
Thus, every little word divulges a story for us. Sometimes we can only hear the faintest echo of the story that once was so vigorous for many. Learning words both sates our desire for precise knowledge as well as teaches us the virtue of humility.
But, alas, we haven't really gotten to any of the "pyc's" yet. The next essay does so.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long